Fragments of Memories

The Sewing Machine
From the Memoirs of Helen Benninga
With her daughter Chana Arnon-Benninga


My married life started in 1937 in Leeuwarden, the capital of the Friesland province in the northern Netherlands. A year and a half later, in February 1939, our first child, Aleida Chana, was born. As was customary at the time, a married woman with a child did not work outside the house. Thus being forced to keep myself busy, I found an interesting radio program broadcast at regular intervals on teaching you how to sew. Taught by Miep Olff van Boven, the course came with written instructions, and the instructor, whom we later got to know personally, made it an experience to be cherished. Although at the time I did not own a sewing machine, the material, which I had absorbed, served me well at a later date.

Little did we know that a little more than a year after our daughter was born, we would be forced to take a very difficult decision: we decided to escape the country of our birth in order to save our lives from the murderous Nazis. Our travels took us to unexpected places, England, Australia, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). On May 14, 1940, we managed to escape from Haarlem, on the Dutch coast, to Folkstone on the English coast and from there to London. We could not, and would not, stay in England and looked for a boat to take us “somewhere.” After intense efforts, we managed to get booking with the Orient Line, a Canadian shipping line, on a boat sailing to Perth in Australia. Together with some fifty fellow Dutch-Jewish refugees we spent almost two months wandering on this boat and finally reached our destination, Freemantle, the harbor of Perth, in mid-August. Not being allowed to stay in Australia, we had to take another boat to Indonesia, then Dutch territory. Arriving in Batavia (now Jakarta) on August 29, 1940, we embarked on an arduous journey of surviving this war. In the end, we were successful; we survived difficult years, including more than two years of Japanese internment camps, together with my mother, Anna Frank-Goslinski, who had made the flight with us.

Upon arrival in Batavia, we were given hospitality with a Dutch family where we stayed for two weeks. During this time, we looked for a place to set ourselves up. We found a small house, bought some simple furniture and started a household, which included my mother and a male cousin, Izak, who was later drafted into the Dutch army and perished from exhaustion and illness on the Burma railroad. The Dutch lady who gave us shelter when we first arrived, Mrs. Sophie Kraak, had given me some good advice. She told me: “Don't sit idle. Do things for your child, take care of her yourself. Prepare your own food and then tell the Kokki (the native cook of which every European household had one) what she should do. Also start sewing clothes for your child; material is very inexpensive here and if you make a mistake, throw away the piece and make a new one.” I did not have a sewing machine yet, but I was soon to acquire one.

In a short time, we moved from Batavia to Bandung and then to Surabaya, on the eastern tip of Java. There I met a friend who went with me to buy a sewing machine for twenty-five guilders. It was a Singer hand sewing machine: the right hand turned the wheel attached to the sewing machine apparatus which moved the needle up and down on the left side. It was not the most efficient procedure, but it had to make do. I started sewing for my child, remembering the lessons on the radio in Holland. From Surabaya, we moved back to Bandung and then the war caught up with us again. In December 1941, Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies and soon after the Japanese started their campaign of isolating the Dutch and the British population. In April 1943, the process was in full swing and we were concentrated in “ghettoes” for Europeans, with our family still intact. Then Noah, my husband, was deported with all the other men to a prison. Soon the women were also taken away and we followed parallel lines, the men and the women, to camps which grew progressively worse and from which we were liberated only after Japan capitulated in August 1945. The camps deprived us of our liberty, of all but the barest amount of food, of privacy (we slept in barracks on wooden boards with dozens of fellow prisoners), and of any sort of spiritual or cultural content. Our lives turned into a continued attempt to endure and hope for a turn of events. With the years, the Japs separated Jewish women from the others, so our world became even more confined and gloomy.

In March 1943, when we first heard of the impending transport that was to take us to a camp, a lady came to tell us that the camps were completely empty, and if we had anything of use that could help us survive, we should take it with us. She also warned us that the Japanese would confiscate most of our baggage, but we should try to smuggle in what we could. I took my sewing machine, which was immediately taken away from me to be used in the sewing room, and I did not see it again. During the years, we went on many transports. The women and children would be rounded up and taken by trucks and trains from one camp to another without any reason. These transports were nerve-racking events and taxed our drained energies to a maximum: children crying, women quarreling over space and food, the uncertainty of where we were going and having to settle ourselves again with the few belongings we still had, such as a mattress, a blanket, and a few pieces of clothing.
In March 1945, we returned on transport to the first camp where my sewing machine had been taken away from me. When I walked into the camp, I said to my mother, “this is where I left the machine”, but neither of us thought there was even the slightest chance of my seeing it again. In May, we heard that Holland had been liberated, but it took until August for us to be set free. When I heard about Japan's surrender, I went to the camp office and asked about the sewing machine they had taken away from me so long ago, demanding it be given back to me. Miraculously, they found the machine with my prison number on it and I got it back. A few weeks later, with the help of the Red Cross, we were able to leave the camp. We had a place to go to thanks to a camp mate of Noah's, Maurice Cohen, whose wife, Lucy, being French, had not been subjected to imprisonment and who received a bunch of us, survivors of the camps, in her spacious, colonial home. The train ride from the camp in Batavia to the Cohens in Bandung was one of the most harrowing experiences of the war: the train went through seven tunnels where in one of those tunnels the Indonesian insurgents had killed fifty Europeans the night before. But, as they say, “God was with us,” and we made it to Bandung. With the sewing machine!

Before we left Java forever, in January 1946, the sewing machine was used time and again. About to embark on the boat to return to Holland, Noah said, “leave that thing here, who needs it,” but I refused and it went with us to Holland, to Eenrum, where we first lived with Noah's father and where our second child, Simon, was born, then to Arnhem, where we had two more sons; to Emmen, and then to the U.S. where we moved in August 1954. During all these turbulent events, I kept using the machine, first to sew things for the boys, then for the new place we occupied in Asheville, N.C. where we were to live for forty years. In 1993, I moved, alone, to Jerusalem to be with my children and grandchildren after Noah's death. The story of the sewing machine continues only until 1956. At that time, I saw an ad for a reasonable electric sewing machine, a Necchi, and I bought it. The Singer hand machine was exchanged for a buttonhole attachment...

For me, it was the symbol of the end of our wanderings and becoming part of mainstream society, settled into a secure, well-regulated society with no more than the usual fears for the future.

With minor edits by Dr. Karin Doerr.